Why This Company Is Growing Vegetables In Bioreactors Instead of Fields

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The nutri-tech start-up Novella is taking a page from cell-based meat production and growing botanical ingredients without the whole plant.

Israel-based Novella says it’s growing plants in bioreactors in a method similar to cultivated meat, and reducing the inefficiencies of field-based crop production.

“We don’t need the whole plant to get access to specific bioactive compounds,” Kobi Avidan, CEO and co-founder of Novella, said in a statement. “It also isn’t necessary to discard up to 99 percent of a plant and incur tons of agricultural waste just to derive specific nutrients. We have the technology where we can narrow the harvest of an entire field for its plant essence in a single bioreactor.”

According to Novella, the traditional “field to bottle” method of producing nutraceuticals involves a long and complex journey that is labor intensive and limited by the reaches of agricultural land. Ingredients are often grown and harvested across the world before reaching their final destination, further complicating the process, making traceability more difficult, and producing more emissions.

Bypassing the field

Even as urban farms take foot offering locally-grown fruits and vegetables, Novella says no one has tackled the nutraceuticals arm of botanical micronutrients.

Rather than growing the whole plant, Novella is identifying plant tissues such as those in stems, fruits, leaves, and flowers. It then pulls a cell culture, just like companies using the tech for growing meat in bioreactors.

Novella founders

Novella founders (left to right), Itay Dana, Kobi Avidan, and Shimrit Bar-El

The result is a powdered botanical product composed of whole-cell and nutrient-rich plant tissue. The process also eliminates exposure to pesticides and herbicides common in field-based agriculture.

“Growing nutrients outside the plant is actually a simpler process than growing meat cells outside of the cow,” says Avidan. “Moreover, we can now cultivate any ingredient close to the market of interest. This will be instrumental in lowering costs, as well as lightening their ecological footprint.”

Growing kale bioreactors

The startup has begun exploring plants including the dark, leafy green vegetable kale, which is used for its range of vitamins and antioxidants.

“Kale has captured the interest of the functional food, supplement, and pharma industries due to its long list of vitamins and minerals,” says Shimrit Bar-El, PhD, co-founder and CRO of Novella. “But it is very difficult to work with and process. We are specifically exploring the vegetable for its vitamin K and unique carotenoid composition.”

Courtesy Novella

Vegetables are often at risk of contamination from bacteria such as E Coli and salmonella — typically the result of run-off from animal agriculture operations.

Consumers are increasingly demanding products that are microbiologically safe, natural, and without chemical additives, says Itay Dana, B.Sc., MBA, co-founder and BDO for Novella. “There is an increasing demand for natural botanicals, accompanied by incremental rises in prices resulting from a shortage of such products,” Dana says.

“By shifting the cultivation of popular micronutrients to the lab, the Novella platform can help free up extensive agricultural terrain for rededication to the growth of food crops while making high-value nutraceutical ingredients more readily available at affordable prices.”

Lead image courtesy Unsplash.


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